Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directed by: David Yates.
Written by: J.K. Rowling based on her book.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Carmen Ejogo (President Seraphina Picquery), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw, Sr.), Josh Cowdery (Henry Shaw, Jr.), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw) Faith Wood-Blagrove (Modesty), Jenn Murray (Chastity).
The current era of blockbuster filmmaking requires that ever successful franchise has to keep producing sequels, prequels, spin-offs and other stories as part of the “expanded universe” of the original hit series. In that way, it’s actually a little surprising it took them 5 years to come up with something to keep the Harry Potter franchise going following the 8th and final film in that hugely successful franchise. You can be cynical about this new series – which is promised to be five films – all you want, and yet I think that if more of these expanded universe films did what Fantastic Beasts does, perhaps we wouldn’t be so hard on them. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling for this fun adventure, set in New York, not England, in 1926 and not really featuring any characters from Harry Potter at all (although there are name drops you’ll recognize). The film is directed by David Yates – who took the Harry Potter series home, directing the last four films and that stylistic continuity is welcome. The film feels familiar, and yet different. It’s certainly not a great film – but it’s a promising first entry in the franchise – and if I would have preferred that they didn’t drop in so many hints of what was to come in future installments, I have to admit that’s pretty much par for the course these days.
In the film, Eddie Redmayne plays New Scamander – a former Hogwarts student, who has travelled to New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures, great and small (it’s really a roomy suitcase), for reasons he at first doesn’t want to reveal. What he doesn’t know is that he’s coming to a New York that has the wizarding world in upheaval. America isn’t England it seems, and they have different laws about dealing with Muggles – or No Mags as the unimaginative Americans call them. There is a lot of debate as to whether wizards should continue to hide, or whether they should make themselves known – and if this leads to war with humans, so be it. When a few of Newt’s creatures escape – and a few people die mysterious deaths – Newt is the prime suspect, although he insists his creatures are harmless. We tend to believe him, as we know that Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) – an Auror, is up to no good, and that it somehow involves a family calling for a “Second Salem” - especially the oldest son, Credence (Ezra Miller). Newt has to team up with Tina (Katherine Waterston) – a former Auror, who has recently been demoted, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who can read minds, and kindly No Mag baker Jacob (Dan Kowalski), who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – to try and prove his, and his creatures, innocence.
Like the Harry Potter series before it, the film is a lot of fun – full of interesting creatures created with fine special effects. The creatures range from the enormous – like the creature that looks like a cross between a hippo, rhino and elephant, to the tiny, twig like creatures, Newt keeps in his pocket. The special effects are, as we expect, top notch throughout. I also quite like the period details throughout the film – the production design, costume design and in particular, the hair styles, were excellent, and made an interesting mixture between fantasy and the reality of that time period. For the most part, the performances were good as well. I haven’t been a huge fan of Eddie Redmayne so far in his career – but his shy, awkward weirdness works well for Newt – a character more in tune with his creatures than with other humans – who he struggles to make eye contact with. Even better is Katherine Waterston – getting her first chance in a big movie, after doing great work in Inherent Vice and Queen of Earth – and while this is nowhere near those two performances, she is quite good here – tough, yet sympathetic, and not a damsel in distress. The supporting cast is mostly good – Don Fogler and Alison Sudol have surprising chemistry together for example, Colin Farrell is appropriately villain-y and we spend the whole movie knowing that Ezra Miller is holding something back – and boy is he ever. He really is the embodiment of the films themes of repression – and he’s fine, although the film values surprise over character development, so he’s a little thin there. Not as thin as the always great Samantha Morton, who doesn’t get anything to do.
My biggest bone to pick with the film is that it spends too much time setting up future installments. There are a few celebrity cameos and name drops that we know will eventually become important to the film, but at this point are just there as filler. I get that they want to setup future installments – and if you’re going to make five of these, it’s nice to know they have a plan – but too often, these moments drag the movie to a halt, and don’t lead anywhere within the movie. And one reveal led to laughter in the audience – not a good sign.
But overall the film works – it’s fun and it’s a worthy addition to the Harry Potter film franchise. I hope the series gets better as it moves along – that it’s less interested in setting things up, and just get on with it – but even four more films like this wouldn’t be that bad.